- Federalism is defined as distribution of power in a federation between the central authority and the constituent units (as states) involving especially the allocation of significant lawmaking powers to those constituent units. Federalism is a system of government in which entities such as states or provinces share power with a national government.
- Federalism is one of the most important and innovative concepts in the U.S. Constitution, although the word never appears there. Federalism is the sharing of power between national and state governments. In America, the states existed first, and they struggled to create a national government.
- Federalism is a principle of government that defines the relationship between the central government at the national level and its constituent units at the regional, state, or local levels. Under this principle of government, power and authority is allocated between the national and local governmental units, such that each unit is delegated a sphere of power and authority only it can exercise, while other powers must be shared.
- US Supreme Court justice Hugo L. Black wrote that federalism meant a proper respect for state functions, a recognition of the fact that the entire country is made up of a Union of separate State governments, and a continuance of the belief that the National Government will fare best if the States and their institutions are left free to perform their separate functions in their separate ways.
- Federalism does not consist of a set of fixed principles, rather, federalism as a principle of government has evolved differently in different situations.
- Real politics, culture, ideology and history determine the actual working of a federation. A culture of trust, cooperation, mutual respect and restraint helps federations to function smoothly. Political parties also determine the way a constitution would work. If any single unit or State or linguistic group or ideology comes to dominate the entire federation it could generate a deep resentment that could lead to demands for secession by the aggrieved units or could even result in civil wars. Many countries viz. USSR, Chechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Pakistan etc are embroiled in such conflict situations and division of the countries.
- The constitution declares that India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States. Indian constitution also defines the power distribution, legislative, administrative and executive powers, between the union government (the Centre or union) and the States in India. Constitution of India does not mention the word 'federation of states'. Indian Constitution has created a strong central government to stem disintegration and bring about social and political change. The Constitution clearly states that executive powers of the centre are superior to the executive powers of the States. The division of powers is that economic and financial powers are centralized in the hands of the central government. The States have immense responsibilities but very meager revenue sources.
Certain subjects, which concern the nation as a whole like defence, atomic energy, currency, foreign affairs, railways etc, are the responsibility of the union or central government. Regional matters like law & order, education, agriculture, etc are the responsibility of the State government. Some subjects like forests, electricity etc are kept in the concurrent list. Local administration is left in the hands of Municipalities and Panchayats administered by state governments.
In the middle of the 1960s Congress dominance declined and in a large number of states opposition parties came to power. It resulted in demands for greater powers and greater autonomy to the states. The state governments were protesting against what they saw as unnecessary interference in their governments by the Congress government at the centre. The Congress too, was not very comfortable with the idea of dealing with governments led by opposition parties. Since the 1990's, Congress dominance has largely ended and beginning of an era of coalition politics at the centre. In the States too, different parties have come to power. This has resulted in a greater say for the states, a respect for diversity and the beginning of a more mature federalism. The role of Governors has always been a controversial issue between the states and the central government. The other dimension of tension in our federal system has been the demand to create new States.
Federalism has to continuously maintain a difficult balance between the centre and the States. No legal or institutional formula can guarantee the smooth functioning of a federal polity. Ultimately, the people and the political process must develop a culture and a set of values and virtues like mutual trust, toleration and a spirit of cooperation. Federalism celebrates both unity as well as diversity. National unity cannot be built by streamlining differences. Such forced unity only generates greater social strife and alienation and tends finally to destroy unity. A responsive polity sensitive to diversities and to the demands for autonomy can alone be the basis of a cooperative federation. While the states keep fighting with the centre over autonomy and other issues like the share in revenue resources, states border disputes, river water sharing disputes are even more serious. The judiciary acts as the arbitration mechanism on disputes of a legal nature but these disputes are in reality not just legal. They have political implications and therefore they can best be resolved only through negotiations and mutual understanding.
With the rise of Modi as prime minister and BJP sweeping into power in most states, the nation has become de facto hindutva nation discarding its secular character with brutal majoritarianism that relegated minorities into second grade citizens. Modi attempting to make uniformity across the nation is not only against federal principles but also due to their underlying belief that BJP will remain in power in centre and most states forever, which is insanity. The day BJP loses power in centre, BJP run states would be the first to cry foul of excessive controls by centre. While elections and power will be changing parties from time to time, preserving our ethnicity and respecting our diversity, it is important to preserve federal polity of political system. While powerful centre is essential for preserving unity and integrity of India, near total autonomy for the states, i.e. federalism in its true sense, is equally important for preservation of cultural, religious, linguistic & ethnic diversity of the nation. While uniformity appears seemingly good, it threatens the concept of federalism and undermines autonomy of the states and results in rising of fears of majoritarianism bulldozing over all kinds of minorities. This could be offset to great extent by truly allowing institutional independence. Otherwise voices of north south discrimination that are already rising and heard on and often are sure get louder. Such voices once risen, it is a matter of time the same could consolidate into demands for separatism on regional basis sowing seeds for nation's disintegration. The real issues can't be ignored but must be attended to reassure all people that none is superior and none is inferior in this land of diversity. In a democracy, while majority runs government, minorities and their rights are never inferior and must be respected in letter and spirit. Otherwise doomsday could very well surface at horizon.